Choosing to be active

I have been in Dhaka this weekend, speaking at a conference about sustainable development in South Asia.  Sunday morning’s national papers in Bangladesh carried articles about the event, but also featured news about a tragic incident which took place in the city on Saturday evening.

Whilst conference delegates were stretching their legs between the day’s final session and the evening buffet dinner, a fire broke out in a garment factory in Ashulia, on the outskirts of Dhaka.  Reports currently offer figures of 120+ factory workers who perished in the blaze, and many people are still unaccounted for.

Another story about a factory fire in Asia.  This time it was Bangladesh, most recently it was one in a factory in Pakistan which made international news.

We are familiar with the “sweat-shop” issues raised so publically in the 1990’s, in terms of the disturbing conditions to which factory workers across Asia can be subject.  Many organisations since then, including CARE, have addressed the often hugely complex issues associated with the manufacture of items such as garments and electronics, and have successully run development programmes on factory floors, with factory owners, and in conjunction with the global buyers who sit at the top of the chain.

One of CARE’s achievements in this area has been to work with large retail companies such as GAP and Timberland to implement numeracy and literacy training to workers, helping provide skills and, in turn, confidence and assertiveness to a mainly female employee demographic.

Factory worker in Dhaka – photo credit CARE Bangladesh

To this extent, a few in-roads have been made to improve the lives of some factory workers.  The rise in profile of things such as corporate social responsibility, and more recently the “shared value” agenda – both of which I have written about before – have further helped draw attention to workplace issues faced by the millions of factory employees across this region in particular, and offered ‘carrots’ for the Nikes, the Marks & Spencers, and the Monsoons of the marketplace.

Public campaigning, and coalitions such as the Ethical Trading Initiative, have provided the ‘sticks’.  As has, more indirectly, the rise of ethical consumerism in countries such as the UK, placing additional pressure on the private and public sectors to do more to improve the rules of the game for the industries collectively responsible for the purchase of millions of pounds worth of jeans, shoes and mobile phones that are so in demand by those who can afford them.

Yet, despite this progress, there were several thousand Bangladeshi family members and friends of those who died in Saturday’s fire, waking up yesterday morning to a brutal and stark reality.

Who will be accountable for what took place in Ashulia?  How is it that incidents of this nature continue to happen, and conditions in factories, and treatment of predominantly female workers, still show very little signs of improving?

As endgame consumers, purchasing the latest ‘must have’ line of apparel, what actions can be taken to bring about socially responsible supply chains, that are inclusive towards local producers and workers on the factory floor?

One of the conclusions of this weekend’s conference, was about how catalytic the issue of gender equality is, and will continue to be, to the overall debate and discourse around sustainable development, as well as to topics such as protecting the rights and wellbeing of factory workers.

What does that all mean?

Many things…

It means the realisation – once and for all – of equal pay for men and women (in every industry, and in every country).  It means the active promotion of diversity and equity, up and across organisations (the research and evidence is fairly undisputed now that enhancements in productivity and creativity are greater when organisations employ a more diverse workforce.)

It also necessitates the challenging of societal norms – ie the types of norms which cling onto cultural and traditional persuasions about the role women should take in the household, in the workplace, and in society more generally.  Norms which promote patriarchy, and which ultimately hinder women’s advancement.

An ‘aparajita’ saleswoman selling products in Bangladesh as part of CARE’s newly launched social enterprise, JITA – click on picture to read more

In Bangladesh, these norms comprehensively inhibit women’s active participation in all walks of life and, undeniably, one of the root causes of poverty and of social injustice in the country, is the dis-empowerment of women and girls.

Within the context of the garment industry, the gender dynamics are acutely obvious.  The country is the 2nd largest exporter of garments in the world, operating some 5,000 factories and employing 4 million workers.  80% of whom are women.  Possibly as many as a hundred women, working overtime at 7pm on a Saturday evening, were likely killed in the Ashulia incident.

For most female factory workers, overtime is unavoidable, given the low wages received for the typical 8-12 hour shifts carried out.  Each worker might also be the sole bread-winner in their household, returning home each evening to then take on the domestic responsibilities to which their husbands will not tend.

Many women are forced to move from rural areas to work in Dhaka, and more often than not end up employed in factories, sending money home each month.  Those living in Dhaka away from their families are vulnerable to becoming sex workers and face daily abuse and harassment, both inside and outside of the workplace.

These dynamics are not, of course, unique to Bangladesh and the South Asia region.  In other contexts – such as the UK – gender issues are also at the heart of many of the country’s social tensions.

However, statistics, ratios and stories linked to the issue of gender equity in a country such as Bangladesh, provide indefensible proof of women’s daily struggle to earn money, make decisions, speak out, and actively pursue the same types of careers, social lives and personal achievements in life that are available to men.

There are no silver bullet solutions to how any country arrives at a stage of evolution where genuine equity between the sexes exists (and I would challenge any country to put the case forward for them having met this ambition already).

What we can do is strive to make our own decisions as active citizens, consumers and employees, about how we choose to conduct ourselves in the community, as buyers of products, or as professionals in the workplace.

It can start with these actions.

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